Three industry heavyweights offer insight on how to handle maintenance conflicts with customers.


While in the Navy, I knew a couple of guys that were EOD’s, short for Explosive Ordinance Disposal. I liked them because no matter what was going on, they always kept calm. A disclaimer here: I never went to work with them because I have a fear of being blown to bits. Maintenance operations managers and account managers often face the same task – going into a situation with an unsatisfied customer and trying to defuse it before it blows up.

As flooring maintenance contractors, we know that unexpected results can happen on occasion in the field. What we expect isn’t always what we get. Unfortunately these surprises, while not uncommon for us, may lead to a conflict with a customer who was expecting a completely different outcome. Knowing how to properly tackle the issue and work out a resolution is imperative.

I asked some of our XL North Tactical Group members how to handle four sticky situations that may arise with customers.

The architect said this was “no maintenance” flooring.

Will Wright, VP of Operations, DFS Green

Okay, to start off, let’s realize that architects are salespeople too, not operations-minded staffers. They believe in the transactional sale, not the “service” warranty of the product. All that fine print is to help them get out of responsibility and point the finger towards anyone other than themselves.

Setting the correct expectations is always preferred. However, if that isn’t an option, you want to do your best to remind the customer that you’re here because an issue has arisen in the maintenance of a “no maintenance floor”. We are here to help remedy their problem, much like a doctor diagnosing an illness, and, hopefully, offer a solution that can rectify the issue.

Steve Starcher, President, Timco

I often feel like there is a common problem with the translation of “low” maintenance meaning “no” maintenance. In a meeting regarding dissatisfaction with the performance of an LVT flooring material, the manufacturer described periodic scrubbing with a 175 RPM machine and using a wet vac to recover solution as a “low maintenance” procedure. The customer considered this “high maintenance” because equipment that they did not possess was required and to the them “low maintenance” meant only mopping. “No wax” is also often misinterpreted as “no maintenance”. So, we are commonly called upon to decipher terms or sort out semantics before we can provide a solution. Being able to get the customer, architect and manufacturer on the same page is a necessary skill that we need to hone. Having a copy of manufacturer’s maintenance specifications in these types of meetings is an important tool in sorting this out.

Steve Brown, Owner, Infinite Floorcare

Unfortunately, it may not always be the architect who has said “no maintenance flooring”. It can also be the manufacturer rep. Sometimes they highlight specific features, like aluminum oxide, when talking to customers and offer them as an alternative to maintenance.

Typically, in these situations, the flooring isn’t performing the way the customer expects. I try to act as a mediator between the manufacturer and customer. I want to fairly represent both sides and not throw someone under the bus. Explaining the situation in understandable terms for the customer is key. I also try to offer cost effective or acceptable solutions by educating the customer on the product selection and its maintenance needs. Ultimately, you want them satisfied with their floor’s performance. And I always propose initial maintenance because it’s so often overlooked.

The job wasn’t completed last night.

Will

Always begin with a salutation. I know it sounds stupid, but begin with the relationship you have built (this is the whole reason you spent all that time building the relationship). It sets the discussion off in the correct direction. The idea is to remind the client that we are in a relationship FIRST before we get into the nitty gritty of the problem. If you can get the client to recognize you as a person first as opposed to just another service vendor it will go a long way.

Steve S.

I agree with Will. Also, log books can help with this problem. We all can agree that an area that was not cleaned can be highlighted and presented as complete, but I have found that when technicians are required to fill out a floor plan and/or log book checklist and must repeat that action for floor plans and work order checklists that are turned into a supervisor, that they very seldom are dishonest. We are also very adamant about making sure that our technicians send a text to their managers and note the log book, if applicable, if a job was not completed for any reason. We can then be proactive the next morning and contact the customer.

If we are contacted by the customer, our first question is always, “Why do you think the job was not complete?” We do not defend our company right away and attempt to sound cooperative immediately. I often find that if a job was not complete, it was usually because of a miscommunication or logical reason. If the mistake was on our end, we always accept the responsibility and attempt to provide a quick solution.

Steve B.

Being aware of and informing the customer first is essential, but issues arise and the techs may not be able to notify you immediately. If I hear from the customer that the job wasn’t finished, I first get in touch with the technician and find out what happened on the job. Unfortunately, sometimes there are miscommunications or unforeseen issues that can delay the maintenance or cause it to take longer than expected. I’ve found that customers are most receptive to getting the job completed when you make their time a priority and take their workday and scheduling into consideration.

Well, my Jansan supplier sold me this.

Will

Explain to the customer that Jansan suppliers may know what they are talking about and may have sold a chemistry that is usable (“MAY”). However, your technicians are trained and certified by the governing body for maintenance and mention the collective experience among your techs (i.e., 50 years).

Chemistry is a finicky thing. It is important to remind clients it may not be about what you are using, but what’s in the carpet and how it reacts to the product you’re using. Often times the known isn’t the problem. It is the unknown.

Steve S.

I would hate to paint all product salespeople with a broad brush knowing that many are good at what they do, but I have experienced some exceptionally unprofessional recommendations like tile and grout disinfectant cleaners being recommended for carpet cleaning, bonnet cleaning recommended for newly installed carpet tiles, pine oil cleaners for tile and grout, and products with pH levels above 11 being recommended for every flooring type. I also hear a lot of no-rinse claims from salespeople when the product instructions may not boast that any such action is not required.

Again, agreeing with Will, use your experience and training to establish your expertise in a respectful manner. I will ask a customer to give me a catalog or website info for the product company that they are using and see if I can help make better choices without taking sales away from the rep. In a recent scenario, I was able to get a sales rep to sell a different product for tile and grout cleaning to a customer and, in the process, I helped her sell the customer a backpack vacuum, a micro fiber cleaning system and a small automatic scrubber. She had no objections to my chemical change suggestion after that and the customer felt safer when the outside maintenance company and the rep responsible for their daily needs were working together.

Steve B.

I think we all agree that educating the customer on the type of flooring and the issue they’re having is vitally important. Take time to research the products that they were sold. As Will mentioned, Jansan reps aren’t necessarily as educated as techs. Figure out if there is a miscommunication or misunderstanding in terms of product or type of flooring. Recommend the proper products to your customer or train them on how to effectively use the product that they were sold.

What the customer sees isn’t really the problem.

Will

This is probably the hardest to technically explain and easier to give an analogy. Remember facility managers are calling on us because we are the experts. They know a little on many items; we are the specialists. If we’re talking about brush strokes, equate it with simple analogies. Remind people that when you brush your hair one way versus another it may change the appearance, much like carpet.

If you are speaking about distortion in fibers and actual abrasion, I like to equate it to getting a scratch in sunglasses. Everybody has had a favorite pair of glasses that have been scratched. Remind them you cannot clean a scratch. Carpet is the same. Essentially carpet is an extruded plastic (of sorts). Once soil has collected and abraded the fiber, you now have those sunglasses with a scratch. No matter how you clean it, it will still have a scratch. With carpet, despite a cleaning, it still may appear soiled from the distortion of the filament in the fiber.

Steve S.

In line with the great idea of using analogies, I think that a good picture library with like situations at other locations can be very helpful when trying to explain the perceived problem or imperfection. We also have found that before and after pictures can be helpful. Sometimes customers forget how bad an appearance was before your work was completed and an imperfection can be minimized when the new appearance is viewed beside the old.

Sometimes there is an easy explanation like the shading from “V marks”. It seems very sensible to us but may not seem sensible to a customer, so we must make sure that we don’t get frustrated when our “tribal knowledge” of a situation is not shared by our customer. Frame the situation and consider the customer’s perspective. For example, never underestimate lighting difficulties. The customer sees the floor during the day and the technicians may only see it at night under different circumstances. Educate your customer whenever you can, share that tribal knowledge whenever you can, and if you can develop a very trustworthy relationship with that customer, they may readily accept your explanation of what they are actually seeing because you are the expert. By giving them ample time and space to state their position, you are also earning their respect in listening to yours.

Steve B.

By investigating and identifying the issue, I’m able to better explain the situation to the customer. Will and Steve are right. Often, analogies work best. In terms of explaining chemistry or process, it’s best to keep it simple and basic. Sometimes, I will physically show customers what’s causing an issue by bringing along a digital microscope or perhaps a different lighting source. It’s also helpful to encourage a second opinion and include the manufacturer rep in the conversation.

Any other advice?

Will

  • First off, above everything be confident and courteous.
  • Being nice goes a long way.
  • Never let the sharks smell blood.

Steve S.

  • Be sympathetic to your customer’s position and lack of knowledge in what we do.
  • Sometimes they want to agree with us but the “boss” is the one who is complaining.
  • Gather the necessary info by being an attentive listener and prepare a solution quickly.
  • Train your technicians to defuse situations when they are able. Sometimes they interact with your customer more than you.

Steve B.

  • Be polite and professional.
  • Don’t throw anyone under the bus.
  • Educate the customer.
  • Be the solution.

Get more info!

Here is a link to a website that gives a much broader and more textbook approach to conflict resolution:
http://www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships/conflict-resolution-skills.htm



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Author:
Bill Luallen

Bill Luallen is the Director of Technical Sales for XL North, a division of Textile Rubber and Chemical Company. He is the IICRC RFMT TAC vice chair and participates on many panels and boards including the CRI and the League of Hard Flooring Professionals. When Bill is not traveling to work with customers or talking on the phone, he spends all his down time with his wife Cynthia of 30 years, outside enjoying this beautiful world.

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